The excesses of the fashion world have often been at odds with the philosophy of restraint and reuse that characterizes the sustainability movement. And yet, an outcropping of wizened contemporary designers have decided to integrate recycling principles into their companies for both ethical and ecological reasons. The desire to use something that already exists in order to create something entirely new harkens back to the arte povera of the ’60s—albeit sans the movement’s initial radicalism—and even the “found object” ethos of WWI Dadaism, but this latest approach particularly benefits from decades of aesthetic refinement and effective commercial positioning.
There’s something wonderful about creating second chances for what others might carelessly consider throwaway items, as designer Christopher Raeburn discovered through his use of reclaimed fabrics of his eponymous two-year-old label. “My use of re-appropriated fabrics has been something of a happy accident,” he explains. “I’d always collected and loved military fabrics—generally you could never buy them on a roll as they are vintage or redundant—so the natural step was to start re-using the original garments.” Raeburn, who has used materials from German, Dutch and Swedish armed forces, Eurostar uniforms, as well as parachutes from hot air balloons, mines a sportswear vein that’s both aesthetically sound and ecologically minded. Since the pieces come from re-appropriated materials, they are, by default, limited editions. And according to the laws of luxury, their scarcity makes them even more desirable. So small wonder that despite the label’s neophyte status, it’s already in the hallowed retail walls of Barneys New York.
Dutch-born London-based designer Michael Van Der Ham, meanwhile, has taken the rag pile upmarket by craftily turning a hodgepodge of seemingly incompatible found vintage materials into avant-garde designs that are colorfully and texturally provocative. Brooklyn-based Bodkin, which started up in 2008 and has since won the Ecco Domani Sustainable Design Award, also uses post-consumer recycled polyester, recycled wool and salvaged textiles for its collections, but to a completely different effect. Where Van Der Ham explicitly shows the patchwork of his different sources, Bodkin has entirely masked the recycled feel. The line’s slouchy trousers, ruched dresses, oversized sweaters and belted coats in muted colors resemble garments created from scratch, but have sound ethical practices behind them.
In the realm of accessories, Italian-born, New York-based artist / designer Stefania Pia hunts around flea markets and “forgotten” stores in New York for little charms. The bits and bobs form the basis of her newly created eponymous jewelry line range from old keys to repurposed chains to curious doo-dads that she suspends from scraps of vintage textiles such as Japanese raw silk. She paints one side of her found trinkets in bright neon colors, leaving the other side in its natural state so as not to overshadow the object’s sense of history. “I give [the found objects] a new life, but always preserve this identity they had in their past”, Pia explains. “I like this rich life where memories are hanging on the wall, on the ceiling. It is a tribute to my roots…picking out treasures that are lost.”